In the coming weeks, select students in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts will receive an email congratulating them for being named James B. Angell Scholars. The award, named for the University of Michigan’s third president, celebrates any LSA student who receives an “A” record for two consecutive terms at the University. While we wish to offer congratulations for these students’ diligent dedication to their studies, it is also critical to learn about the award’s namesake. While Angell’s legacy is complex — and potentially problematic — it is unlikely that more than a small percentage of the students that walk through the doors of Angell Hall are aware of this legacy.
Amid a nationwide reckoning with the memorialization of controversial historical figures, the University must also partake in increasing our efforts to thoroughly understand the leaders we choose to highlight on campus, including Angell.
Angell served as University President from 1871 to 1909. During his 38 year tenure as president, the University’s enrollment more than tripled. He was adamant that education be accessible to all, not just for the elite. To this point, he emphasized the admission of first-generation college students; in 1880, fewer than one in four students had parents with a college degree. Angell also oversaw the first female students to join the University at the beginning of his term in 1870 and 1871 and later became a vocal supporter of co-education.
Angell saw education as a public service and greatly expanded resources for faculty research to this end. Under his leadership, the number of departments on campus grew from three to seven and the number of professors went from 35 to 250. Historian James Tobin asserted that it was Angell who supported the University in becoming the leading public university in the country.
These details make it clear why the University would want to honor Angell’s legacy — and they have done so through a myriad of memorialization, the Angell Scholars and Angell Hall being the most well-known. Notably, the University highlights much of this history in its descriptions of Angell online.
But the full story of Angell’s work is more complex: In 1880, during his tenure as University President, he was a diplomat under Rutherford B. Hayes and renegotiated the United States’ ability to restrict immigration from China. The treaty produced, named after Angell himself, opened the door for one of the most racist immigration bills in American history: the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first and only major federal law suspending immigration for a specific nationality.
The act, signed in 1882 by President Chester A. Arthur, prohibited all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S., leaving only Chinese diplomats and their servants with the right to enter the country. Additionally, all non-citizen Chinese laborers who had previously immigrated to the country were barred from becoming citizens, and Chinese citizens who left the U.S. had to obtain special permission to re-enter.
While Angell himself was not directly involved in the creation or passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, his negotiation of the Angell Treaty did pave the way for it. This treaty revoked the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, which had previously granted special privileges to citizens of China and encouraged large-scale Chinese immigration. Shortly after revoking the Burlingame Treaty, the U.S. government chose to ban nearly all Chinese immigration, subsequently resulting in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Angell’s history is thus more complicated than often first presented and we, as a university, need to reckon with it. That being said, it is imperative that this reckoning extends past a debate over whether or not his name belongs on school buildings or honors titles — such a debate is inherently temporary and denies U-M students the ability to honestly discuss and understand our history. Moreover, the removal of a name from a building does little in creating a platform through which to discuss the positive and negative aspects of a figure’s legacy.
The Michigan Daily Editorial Board recommends that the University establish some variety of an official, transparent forum in which students and faculty may honestly discuss important and complicated issues of the University’s history, which include, but are not limited to, Angell’s legacy. This can take a number of forms: perhaps a one or two-credit mini-course that teaches about important figures and events of the University, or a section of student orientation with a similar focus.
Angell’s history is a great case study given that his history, like many others, cannot be categorized binarily as good or bad. Forums like those we suggest would allow students to actually learn about these issues, engaging with history through a more holistic and critical-thinking approach.
It is difficult to predict whether such a course or orientation component would be accepted by faculty and students, or if it would be considered an inconvenient obligation. Nevertheless, a forum of some sort, regardless of if it manifests in this manner, should be implemented.
Understanding the University’s history is important, especially when its prominent figures are so frequently celebrated without context. Angell’s history could therefore act as a springboard for implementing heightened University resources on other historical figures and influences that shape the community we know today.
Ultimately, we need to collectively address the memorialization of those who came before us and, therefore, set the tone of the virtues and values the University aims to uphold. In these continued conversations of reckoning with our University’s past, we must also acknowledge the gray area that many of these historic figures fall into — James B. Angell was able to accomplish some admirable goals, yet his past is not just the positive narrative publicized and memorialized by the University.
It is the responsibility of our institution and its community members to explore the foundations of this University and create a better scaffolding for navigating our understanding of such history going forward.
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